Gov. Whitmer asks DTE, Consumers utilities to expand credits for outages

Craig Mauger Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is asking the state's dominant electric utilities to expand credits paid to customers who've faced a wave of power outages in recent weeks.

In a letter to the leaders of DTE Energy, Consumers Energy and Indiana Michigan Power, the governor said the companies should offer higher credit amounts or reduce the outage duration needed to qualify for credits. They should also automatically credit those eligible, she said.

"More than 750,000 Michiganders lost power over the last few weeks, with some outages lasting up to a week on some of the hottest days of the year," Whitmer said. "Outages like these lead to fridges full of spoiled food, interfere with life-saving medical equipment, disrupt the workday and exacerbate the dangers of unmitigated hot weather.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a press conference at the Farwell Recreation Center in Detroit on Aug. 16, 2021.

"We need tangible, immediate action from Michigan’s three largest utility companies to ensure the production and delivery of affordable, reliable energy to every family, community, and small business."

The letter was addressed to Garrick Rochow, president and CEO of CMS Energy — its primary subsidiary is Consumers Energy — Jerry Norcia, president and CEO of DTE Energy, and Steve Baker, president and COO of Indiana Michigan Power.

Attorney General Dana Nessel made a similar request earlier this week to DTE and Consumers to automatically credit customers who endured long outages.

Whitmer also said in her letter that the utilities should spend more money to improve power reliability through tree trimming and hardening the electric grid. The investments "should be financed in a manner that does not add to the customers' burden," the governor said.

DTE Energy has said it will issue $100 credits to eligible customers whose power remained off Monday morning, six days after storms struck Michigan.

"Our customers have endured hardships from power outages over the last six weeks," DTE Energy said in a Friday statement. "We’ll be back out in those communities most severely impacted, finalizing repairs, accelerated tree trimming and upgrading critical infrastructure. We understand how important reliable power is for our customers and we are committed to making continued improvements now and in the future."

DTE is "proactively applying" a credit to the accounts of customers who experienced outages during last week's storm, the company said.

The $100 credit was in addition to $25 DTE offered to customers with power outages for more than 120 consecutive hours. DTE customers eligible for the $100 will receive both credits for a total of $125. Consumers is offering a $25 credit to eligible customers. 

Consumers Energy has already "more than doubled our investment in grid hardening reliability and increased our forestry investment by more than 60 percent since 2018," said the company's spokeswoman Katie Carey.

"Looking forward, we plan to continue to significantly increase our investments in grid reliability," Carey said. "We have a $5.4 billion electric reliability plan that is a blueprint for serving Michigan today and innovating to reduce the duration and number of power outages. We are proud to partner with the governor and Michigan Public Service Commission on improving reliability, in an affordable way, when historic weather events hit our state."

Michigan ranks fourth highest nationwide for average annual power interruptions, according to the latest complete data from 2019 compiled by the Energy Information Administration.

Outages are often caused by major weather events like storms and wildfires. An abundance of trees, estimated to be 14 billion in Michigan, also are blamed for mass outages like the one that left more than 900,000 in the dark for days here after Aug. 11 storms that sent tree parts flying.

In a separate letter on Friday, Whitmer encouraged the Michigan Public Service Commission to prevent utilities from recovering outage-related costs from customers and to speed up the adoption of rules that will increase grid security and reliability. 

Whitmer appointed all three current members of the public service commission, which regulates utilities in the state.

Matt Helms, spokesman for the Michigan Public Service Commission, said the panel is currently working to develop its next steps, consistent with the governor's recommendations. The commission will have mot to say on the subject next week, he said.

"Some changes are already under consideration," Helms said. "This includes raising power outage credits from the current $25 that utilities pay to customers who suffer lengthy or repeat outages, and making those payments automatic, which the MPSC’s staff has proposed as part of our efforts to update reliability standards."

In a statement, the nonprofit Michigan Environmental Council said it supported Whitmer's letter to the utilities.

"Hundreds of thousands of Michiganders lost power and face unforeseen financial burdens due to the unreliability of DTE and Consumers Energy," said Charlotte Jameson, program director for legislative affairs, energy and drinking water at the organization. "A mandatory, automatic credit for residents that the utilities foot the bill for is past due, and we urge the commission to help make those who were burdened by the outages whole again.”

A series of storms moved across Michigan last week, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of residents. On Aug. 12, Whitmer appeared with Rochow, the leader of Consumers Energy, in Ingham County to talk about the immediate response to the outages.

Talking to reporters, Whitmer said Michigan had experienced a "nonstop barrage of extreme weather."

Staff Writers Beth LeBlanc and Hani Barghouthi contributed.